THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
When I watched the trailer of the newest biopic about General Antonio Luna on YouTube, I told myself to view it once it went out on September 9th this year. I did, and I was never disappointed. Heck, I had a smile on my face even after all the blood and intestines spew out of the lead character, played by John Arcilla.
Since Luna’s assassination, many and varied leads were made on who ordered it. Obviously, most people think Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado) was the primary person to blame. After all, he is the President and Dictator of the Republic. Though there are many who conspired about how to get rid of ‘Luna the Lunatic’, Jerrold Tarog, the director, co-writer, music scorer, and editor of the film (I’ll deal with his multi-tasking later on), have not given a clear villain. In fact, he never intended to have one. For the record, Tarog portrayed Aguinaldo as a reluctant President (puppet head, if you may) surrounded by men of varied interests, whether national, personal, or otherwise. It was Apolinario Mabini (Epy Quizon), Aguinaldo’s Prime Minister, who arbitrated the infightings in the cabinet, maybe due to his superior skill in bureaucracy.
As far as the film is concerned, viewers are given the chance to hint who really wanted Luna dead. Though Tarog never revealed who it is (echoing historical accounts where the assassins and conspirators were neither identified nor punished), it is clear who killed the great general: The Filipino Revolution.
Three main factors stand out when I watched this film: The three Cs of concept, cinematography, and cash.
The concept of the film is clear: Reveal General Luna’s role in the revolution. The results were also clear: Luna’s only intention was to unify the country in arms and principle. The fact remains the same: Human as he is, Luna’s temper led him to his frustration, and eventually, his downfall.
‘Heneral Luna’ was made as historically accurate as possible, though the forewords warned about a few creative and realistic interpretation of facts (i.e., creative liberty); which is, as far as I am concerned, forgivable due to the fact that the film was well-researched, well-designed, and well-executed as long as funds and creative juices flow.
The use of comedy also gave me reason to praise this film, thanks to the Laconic humour of Captain Eduardo Rusca (Archie Alemania), one of Luna’s aides and officers, who laughed at the face of death, jested on coward soldiers, and even sneered on superiors like General Tomas Mascardo (Lorenz Martinez) and peers, particularly Caviteños, both cases due to their wanton pride. But on second thought, Captain Rusca’s humour was only the result of his direct superior’s wit when Luna converses with them and other compatriots. Luna have mastered Laconic humour and can be so contagious that I laughed hard at the scene where Luna commandeered a train for his men and tried to talk to an English-speaking station master with the limited French and English he have learned during his Illustrado days.
When he ran out of English, Luna blurted out: ‘Nauubusan na ako ng Ingles dito! Arestuhin n’yo na lang ang p*****-i**ng ‘yan!‘ (sic) [I’m running out of English here! Just arrest that son of a b****!] When the station master was led away from Luna’ sight, his comic remark goes like: ‘Ingles-inglesin mo ako sa bayan ko?! Punyeta!‘ [Speaking English in my own land?! Damn it!] A later scene has portrayed darker comedy for Luna when he was furious that civilians were accommodated while his men were left outside. Luna told the civilians: ‘Mga inutil! Hindi tayo namamasyal! Baba! Baba!‘ (sic) [Idiots! We are not going sightseeing! Get out! Get out!]
There is one side of Luna where he have showcased his skills in music (Luna was a guitar player), fencing (the Luna brothers Juan and Antonio were master swordsmen), poetry, and rhetoric, the latter two being prominent in the film, thanks to the fictional character Joven Hernando (Aaron Villafor). Apparently, Luna influenced his top aide, Colonel Francisco ‘Paco’ Roman (Joem Bascon), to be poetic as his commander and controlling his temper without insubordinating, thus earning Luna’s trust and loyalty until death.
Aside from his humour and craftsmanship, there is another reason, albeit very personal, why Luna is not all blood and guts. His love of country stemmed at home and has sacrificed personal gain in order for the Philippines to survive–or die trying. As an Atenean, he has hinted the Jesuit concept of being ‘a man for others’ before the mantra even existed. As a Thomasian bachelor of Pharmacy, he not only offered his science for the Motherland (though indirectly in his later years), but also have prefigured the University’s virtue of compassion alongside competence and commitment. This he did displayed even the film portrayed him admitting to his mother that he is a Freemason. Tarog has emphasised the more human side of Luna: His love for Isabel (some rumoured to be a Cojuangco and ancestor of the current and outgoing President, though Tarog said that she was a composite of all the girls Luna loved before), the mutual affection he and his mother have, the bond he have with his Kuya Juan (more on this later), his praise for his courageous men and being a disciplinarian father to his troops (specifically, the dying captain Luna field-promoted to colonel before he died; and Lieutenant Garcia (Ronnie Lazaro), who eventually commanded a unit of the Luna Sharpshooters, or Tiradores in the film, elite light infantrymen who are part-marksmen, part-skirmishers, and part-grenadiers), and his belief in fate, portrayed in the suicide charge that may have killed him in the Battle of Santo Tomas if not because of the coins that ‘mama’ gave which absorbed the bullet.
Though I was expecting more battle scenes, and more accurate portrayal of such (yes, I admit I am obsessive-compulsive regarding that–but I’m not the only one), ‘Heneral Luna’ have employed the less-is-more tactic when it comes to such. Tarog have used a few creative liberties to create a scene where a Gatling gun was fired in anger against the Filipinos, since machine guns such as that and John Browning’s M1895 ‘Potato Digger’ are already used by the Americans at that time, as well as accusing the fictional son of Felipe Buencamino (Nonie Buencamino) as a coward in battle, not to mention that a friend of mine noting that Luna and his men may not be knowledgeable about the effective range and rate of fire of the guns they use, even finding the irony with what he said (‘Isang direksyon lamang ang pagpapaputok! Huwag aaksayahin ang bala!‘ ‘Concentrate your fire! Save your bullets!’) in relation to what he did, which shows Luna blind-firing at the enemy. I say: Luna was also a sharpshooter. Maybe Tarog have also researched about post-traumatic stress disorder and how it may have affected the accuracy and attitude of the Filipino soldiers and Luna himself. His use of trenches, though, was historically true.
Though I have been left wanting of the action and gunfight, as well as the people I have conversed with say they were, the fact that Tarog incorporated the badass horseback scene where Luna singlehandedly charged the enemy lines with pistol on hand, rousing and inspiring his men to charge, as well as the very graphic assassination scene, is sufficient enough. Luna’s bravery in the Battle of Santo Tomas earned the respect of his enemies, specifically General Arthur McArthur (General Douglas’s dad), who regretted the death of ‘a worthy adversary’ when news of Luna’s assassination came to him. Other American generals commented that ‘with the death of General Luna, the Filipino army lost the only General it had.’ In summary, when it comes to war, Tarog have portrayed Luna as a badass warrior. And I hope Ben Thompson of Badass of the Week would consider him in one of his posts.
Just a trivia: Antonio Luna’s military genius was credited to him having General Gerard Lehman as his mentor. Lehman is the Belgian Hero of Liege in the Great War fifteen years after Luna’s death. It is plausible to think that Luna may have rubbed elbows (and maybe clashed swords in war games) with Prince Albert Léopold Clément Marie Meinrad, the future Albert I, King of the Belgians. Luna has learned from Lehman the art of siege warfare, guerrilla tactics, and military discipline.
Unfortunately, military discipline is what was lacking among Filipino troops.
Infighting is not only portrayed in politics, since there is also politics in the battlefield, and in the film, it is primarily Luna against the insubordinate and regionalist General Mascardo. Luna was overall commander of the whole army. while Mascardo would like to treat Luna as a mere ‘first among equals’ or in military jargon, ‘just another general with one more star than mine.’
Since I have mentioned Gerard Lehman, it is plausible to say that the Luna Defence Line or War Plan Luna was heavily inspired by its namesake’s schooling in Belgium. The plan was basically delaying the enemy in a series of blockading lines in the Central Luzon plains before arriving at the Cordilleras, which will be eventually made a national redoubt. And while I’m at it, let me say that the plan and concept of guerrilla warfare was eventually applied by Aguinaldo, but not after Luna was long decaying in the grave. Basically, Aguinaldo heeded Luna’s strategy too little too late. Should War Plan Luna been approved and succeeded while Luna was still alive, it may have out-timed the Siege of Liege as a successful delaying tactic at the turn of the 20th Century.
Adding to the main themes of discipline and insubordination, Luna struggled to keep his men disciplined and not to give a damn on whom to follow and not to prefer tribesfellow over a superior officer who is not of his province of origin. It seems that the film have made a direct correlation between the two factors that eventually sealed our fate not only in the Philippine-American War, but also in our modern society as well. I say that it is logically possible, and in fact, is actually in existence today. And adding fuel to the fire, discipline is, was, and will be the Filipino’s main problem. But let’s understand that in Luna’s time, those who fought with the Spaniards and the Americans were merely militiamen: there when you need them, elsewhere if you don’t. Most soldiers, if not all, were inexperienced volunteers. And the veterans are fast depleting either through death, desertion, poor health, age, or a combination of two or more of these factors.
Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, states that ‘[w]hen the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganisation.’ Luna tried hard to prevent this from happening, yet it eventually did. But as far an earlier Sun Tzu statement in the doctrine is concerned, it seems that Luna’s men and himself are strong, experienced, and determined, with the question of how specified, but officers from other units are too weak, resulting to insubordination; with examples such as General Mascardo and Captain Pedro Janolino (Ketchup Eusebio), the latter eventually becoming Luna’s primary assassin after he was humiliated for his inaction and misguided conscience. But to reckon Sun Tzu as the prophet of Luna’s downfall is a topic for another day.
Finally on discipline, a number of decades later, Ferdinand Marcos, who is technically Aguinaldo-like in leadership style but Luna-like in discipline, though way much better and more successful than both, even attempted to imitate Luna in ingraining discipline to every Filipino. Remember the slogan ‘Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan‘? [For the progress of the country, discipline is necessary.] That is what I meant.
Finally on discipline, a number of decades later, Ferdinand Marcos, who is technically Aguinaldo-like in leadership style but Luna-like in discipline, though way much better, or worse, and more or less successful than both (depending on how someone sees it), even attempted to imitate Luna in ingraining discipline to every Filipino. Remember the slogan ‘Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan‘? [For the progress of the country, discipline is necessary.] That is what I meant.
Cinematography-wise, Jerrold Tarog heavily based the film from Dr Vivencio Jose’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna’. In the interview made by Ria Limjap, one of his ‘staff’ in Artikulo Uno Productions, Jose shared that he grew up in an era where Luna was considered the ‘bad guy’ with temper issues. ‘I grew up in an environment that was very anti-Luna,’ he said, ‘…a culture that focused only on his mercurial temper.’ Jose noted that he was hoping to write a tragic biography of a national hero and eventually ended up with Luna as there were still no full, unbiased biographies of him at that time due to the above-mentioned reasons. After months of research and editing, Jose have submitted his draft to his professor in the University of the Philippines, who acted as his editor since he would like to see it published. Decades later, Tarog, a fellow Maroon, picked up Jose’s book, and the rest was history.
As for the actors, just like any director, Tarog have hand-picked them, specifically Arcilla, whom he admired in his debut role in a 1980s indie film. As said earlier, Tarog have not identified a clear antagonist in the film, and many on social media even suggested that it is Luna himself who is the antagonist, the antihero. And yet people rave it. At least it’s the realistic side of the story. Yet there are still some who still blame on Aguinaldo. (Poor Miong…. Not.) But as far as I am concerned, faction leaders Buencamino and Pedro Paterno (Leo Martinez) are also suspects. Mabini was portrayed as an arbiter and not as a game-changer despite being Prime Minister and despite his restrained support for Luna’s unorthodox military doctrine. Not only were his feet paralysed, but his hands were tied as well, making Mabini an ideological paraplegic. Luna’s officers and staff are portrayed as semper fidelis to their commander and to the cause, from the rowdy Rusca to Luna’s silent second-in-command, General Jose Alejandrino (Alvin Anson); though his men are not necessarily such.
The women of Luna’s life are always expressing concern for his arrogance, temper, and the way he runs things. Most of the women in the film were mostly portrayed as medics and nurses, Even Isabel (Mylene Dizon), Luna’s semi-fictional love interest, was a nurse herself. But there were also tougher portrayals in the early parts of the film. In the scene of the Battle of Santo Tomas, Captain Rusca was immediately flanked by female soldiers when he noticed two of the men abandoning the trench. Rusca commented ‘Mas matatapang pa ang mga babae kaysa sa inyo!‘ (sic) [The women seem to be more courageous than you are!] The female soldiers echoed the officer, jeering their comrades to come back. ‘Hoy! Bumalik kayo!‘ (sic) [Hey! Come back!] they said.
Everything about women in film is absolutely a sensitive thing to discuss, but Tarog, at the very least, tried to simplify things: That women both have a role in the struggle for independence and that they are highly-valued for both good and bad reasons. But aside from Luna’s mum Doña Laureana (Bing Pimentel), Aguinaldo’s mum (yes, like Jose Rizal, Tonying and Miong are mama’s boys), Isabel, and the old woman selling chicken in the churchyard where Luna paid for the trouble of shooting the poor bird, and even offered it for the woman to cook for her own dinner, no other female figures were prominent. But that doesn’t matter at all. The fact that the women were portrayed as the people behind the kampf of the Filipinos was good enough for me and for my good friend, Julius Fernandez, who wrote in his own review in summary: ‘Although, the 20% of the movie showed how female characters played big roles in Luna’s life … [it emphasises] how Filipinos, although considered patriarchal, give so much value to the concept of femininity, motherhood, and the concept of the ‘woman behind’. The movie also showed how the early Philippine Army was gender-blind. Those scenes were short and sweet but they were enough to assert the role of the Filipina in nation-building.’
The screenplay and design, as well as the graphics, are top of the class (if only I can insert an F-bomb on that phrase, I would). It was a long time coming. The previous best in these categories was Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s ‘Jose Rizal’, which was released back in 1999(!). The film, as we know, starred Cesar Montano as Pepe and Joel Torre as his alter-ego Juan Crisostomo Ibarra/Simoun from his two novels. In full circle, Diaz-Abaya’s son Marc, more known as the vocalist of the band Kjwan, portrayed Antonio Luna the Illustrado under the music bed of the famous melancholic movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ with a brief violin duet in it, which I think is intentional, since the name ‘Luna’ is the Romance translation (Latin and Spanish, in particular) of ‘moon’.
Well, you might ask me: ‘Ian, how about the other historical films?’ I hate to say this, but I think they are all substandard compared with ‘Heneral Luna’.
‘El Presidente’, though a good film in itself, was an entry to the now-dreaded Mertopolitan Manila Film Festival, ‘Supremo’ and ‘Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo’ were box office flops. ‘The Great Raid’, where Montano played the role of Captain Juan Pajota, was released behind schedule, and is, in fact, a foreign film altogether focusing on the American prisoners of war. GMA’s historical series ‘Katipunan’ and ‘Illustrado’ were not even films, but the way Andres Bonifacio, played by Sid Lucero, and Jose Rizal, acted out by Alden Richrds (yes, AlDub fans, he was Pepe first before ‘courting’ Maine Mendoza in Eat Bulaga), were portrayed makes me concede that they are the next best thing to a historical film. I even have no idea if ‘Baler’ is more of a love story rather than a cinematic portrayal of the Siege of Baler.
And what about that upcoming film about Felix Manalo, you may further ask? Well, aside from their EDSA-Shaw show of force that caught the ire of drivers and commuters, all I can say is that most, if not all, of the viewers of it are members of the Iglesia ni Cristo; so it is already predictable. What I’m looking forward to watch with my girlfriend is that Argentinian film about the life of Pope Francis prior to his papacy, which would be released in Philippine theatres on September 30th. So I say, it’s a topic for another day.
Now back to the film. What I liked most about the movie is that Jerrold Tarog was a multi-tasker. He directed the film, yes, but he also co-wrote it with EA Rocha and Henry Francia, the latter unfortunately died without seeing the progress of the film. He also edited the film and made its musical score minus, of course, the Beethoven part. I say that Tarog’s passion in the process makes me believe that he hand-crafted this film and can be considered a heavyweight contender in its genre. He even has time to accommodate a theme song composed by Ebe Dancel, Hanggang Wala Nang Bukas [Until There’s No Tomorrow]. Though anachronic, the message of Dancel’s song was hand-in-glove with the personality of Luna. Just like his Sugarfree days, Dancel’s voice and poetry strikes at the heart of the Filipino. Heck, I’m even convinced of making a cover of the song if I was not writing this review!
Joven asked Luna: ‘Ano po’ng kabayaran [ng kalayaan]?‘ (sic) [What is the price of freedom?] ‘Dugo at pawis‘ [Blood and sweat], Luna replied. And when I say the film was bloody good, it is literally bloody. The trench scene in the beginning was one of my favourites outside the assassination scene. This was when Captain Rusca ordered a soldier to keep his head down. Eventually, the soldier was shot by a cannonball, blowing his head clean off and splattering whatever was left of it at Rusca, who was feeling lucky he kept his head down (Sorry, Dirty Harry…).
As for the assassination scene, I may have a big grin at my face for how good it was, but for other viewers, Luna’s death gave them a chilling effect. Imagine you were General Luna: You got deceived that there is a cabinet meeting. The only cabinet member you saw was the traitor Buencamino. Some SOB fired a shot that got you enraged. When you noticed that you were surrounded by the very men you have ordered to be stood down (i.e. the Kawit Battalion, Aguinaldo’s personal guard), you got shot and stabbed 30 or more times, one of them to your eye, which is near to your brain. You still continue to walk (since the bullets may have not enough stopping power to kill someone) and try to hack and shoot your assassins while screaming in bloody murder your last words ‘Mga duwag! Mamamatay-tao! Traydor!‘ [Cowards! Assassins! Traitors!] As you lay bleeding and screaming one last time in anger, the assassins cowardly pull back, as if you would still rise up and try to kill them. Then when they are assured you are already dead, more hacking and more shooting happened until you cannot be recognised anymore and your guts are all over the place. Gory, gory. What a hell of a way to die, indeed. And Tarog brilliantly made it that graphic.
Now one of the things I love about this film is that it connected the lead character to his older brother, his Kuya Juan. Antonio told Joven that he have asked his brother, artist as he is, to create a universal design for the uniforms to emphasise the vision of unity among the ranks, though it eventually was abandoned in vain. Juan was also heavily represented in the flashback scene, painting ‘The Parisian’ and fencing with Antonio in the Sala de Armas.
But the most important part of the connection between the Luna brothers, and of the film as well, was this scene where soldiers of the Kawit Battalion dragged General Luna’s body, as well as that of Colonel Roman, who was also killed as he and Captain Rusca rushed to Luna’s aid. The result: Tarog’s live recreation of Juan’s masterpiece ‘Spoliarium‘. A prophecy in painting fulfilled.
As far as cash and profitability is concerned, I think this is the least factor to consider, given that the production team has decided to slash half the ticket price for students provided that they will show their IDs. This is also a challenge for those young guns to try watching something new from a local filmmaker.
Personally, I recommend this for Communications students, being a bachelor of Communication Arts myself, not only because of my interest in history, but also because it will help them to conceptualise should they make short films of their own, and eventually follow filmmakers like Tarog. I also recommend professors to recommend this film to those taking up history in college as appreciation to those who make history a less boring topic at home, in school, and on casual conversations.
As of this writing, social media is all praises for ‘Heneral Luna’, ranging from history geeks like me, actual historians like THE Ambeth Ocampo, normal people who have praised its trailer for its graphics and have detested other historical films for their staleness, as well as those who criticise and condemn Aguinaldo and his descendant, Transportation Secretary Jun Abaya (whose mum was an Aguinaldo from one of Miong’s other relatives), for their incompetency in politics, the former for allegedly ordering the murder of Luna a centrury ago, the latter for his incompetency in the job in the present.
If there is a legacy that the film would like to leave in the Philippine cinema industry, it is its desire to be an avant-garde to the new generation of films in the historical genre. I say: ‘Heneral Luna’ will be the catalyst and basis for future historical films.
Witty one-liners and hard-hitting ‘hugot’ lines are scattered across the script, and I see it as a tribute to the one-liners that defined Filipino cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s such as ‘Isang bala ka lang‘ [I’ll just give you one shot], ‘Walang himala!‘ [There are no miracles!], ‘Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang‘ [You were weighed and left wanting], and ‘You’re nothing but a second-rate, trying hard copycat.’
Among my favourites were Rusca’s gender-themed remark to the two coward soldiers that I have mentioned earlier; Mascardo’s challenge to Luna, ‘Kung gusto mo ako ipakulong, magdala ka nang kabaong‘ [If you want to arrest me, bring along a coffin], his reaction to the telegram where Luna will meet him in Guagua, exclaiming ‘Punyeta! Kung away ang hinahanap ng hayop na yun, away ang ibibigay ko sa kanya!‘ [Damn it! If that brute is looking for a fight, I’ll give him one!], and when his request was granted, saying ‘Baliw ka talaga, Luna‘ [You really are insane, Luna]; and Mabini’s rhetorical challenge to Aguinaldo about how to deal with Luna’s attitude, ‘Nasubukan mo na bang hulihin ang hangin?‘ [Have you tried to catch the wind?].
Finally, I admire Arcilla’s delivery of Luna’s one-liners, such as ‘Ang taong may damdamin ay hindi alipin‘ [A man with emotions is no slave], ‘Negosyo o kalayaan? Bayan o sarili? Pumili ka!‘ [Business or freedom? Country or self? You choose!], and his famous last words. But above all of Luna’s lines, I admire his statement in the second cabinet scene which, I think is reflective of who we are today: ‘Mga kapatid, may mas malaki tayong kaaway kaysa sa mga Amerikano: Ang ating sarili.‘ [Brothers, we have a larger enemy than the Americans: Ourselves].
Why am I saying this? Because social media got hooked to it. I am hinting that there will be memes posted in the coming days, and in fact, as of this writing, they are already emerging.
In summary, I have enjoyed watching this film, not only for its world-class technicalities and screenplay, but with the message it portrays as well. It makes us realise where our faults came from and how it became transcendent in the modern times.
It also makes us ask: After a hundred years, are we really free? Have we really become a nation unified in ideologies and objective principles? Was Antonio Luna right all along? then why was he killed? and who killed him? ‘Heneral Luna’ ended with a question mark: Now what?
I hope that those who have watched the film have this feeling that it was worth spending for. Personally, it is, because when it comes to movies, money well spent is profit both ways.
Before I forget, Paulo Avelino has starred in a minor role as General Gregorio del Pilar, aka ‘Goyong the Boy General’. And in a post-credits scene, an officer presented the remnant of Luna’s army to Del Pilar and asks him what to do with the men. Del Pilar answered: ‘Kumuha ka ng sisenta‘ [Get sixty], hinting about his last stand at the Battle of Tirad Pass, which I have a good feeling is a worthy sequel that I hope Tarog would consider.